A funny thing has happened in the tech news world lately: social media just became the new tech scapegoat. It happened around the hundredth clinical study of how bad social media is for us, and somewhere between “fake news” and the retort “well YOU’RE fake news too!”
Social media can congratulate itself on being in good company. Before it, every medium has taken its turn being blamed for all our ills. Louis C.K. thinks cell phones make kids into shallow sociopaths…
Somebody on the Internet said the Internet is the tool of Satan. And video games will make you a violent sadist, before that – and has anybody seen Jack Thompson lately? The FCC chairman proclaimed television a vast wasteland back in 1961. Comic books were the seduction of the innocent before that. And in case you think good old printed literature never did anything wrong, of course reading was a scapegoat once too. “…some diagnosed as reading addiction and others as reading rage, reading fever, reading mania or reading lust.” We all know the words by now, everybody sing along.
So Social Media Is Scary Now…
Latest studies confirm: Social media makes a teenager a lonely panda. Men’s Health wrings its collective mitts that social media is making us isolated. The Independent’s view of social media cannot even be quoted with a straight face. Here come the psychologists with the studies of how social media is correlated with bad stuff. And do we even have to bring up the “fake news” panic?
It’s inevitable that the backlash against social media would mount at this point in history. We do, after all, have a president and administration which uses social media in a particular way many object to. We’re also all familiar with the effect of the media echo chamber. It is far too easy to surround yourself with only those voices you agree with. Pick any crazy world-view, any skewed philosophy, and there’s an online support group standing by to validate you all day long.
The late Robert Anton Wilson is a name we should all be missing about now, because he would be doing backflips over the current debate. Wilson borrowed from Timothy Leary a phrase for the media echo chamber effect, which was “reality tunnels.” A reality tunnel is the little world view each of us have. It’s this solipsist effect where our perception of the same reality is warped and shaped by our own mental filters. Nobody is necessarily right or wrong, but we easily get entrenched in a focused world view. Our conflicts happen whenever there’s too much difference between one person’s tunnel and another.
Before that, the even later Marshal McLuhan would have loved to join in this discussion. He’s credited with predicting the World Wide Web some three decades before it happened. And yes, he’s the famous quote you might have seen in college media study textbooks: “The medium is the message.” McLuhan characterized mediums as “hot” and “cold” for how saturating they were. He probably would have considered social media to be in the range of boiling lava.
OK, so what can we do about it? Well, we’ve lived through a thousand other social upheavals as a result of media, so perhaps in time we will adjust. Then social media will be just one more thing yelling for our attention, after the novelty has worn off. Which brings us back to the sins of other media before it…
About That “Fake News”…
The next time somebody talks about “fake news” as if it never happened before social media, can we all show them this?
Maybe cell phones are too engrossing. Everybody has been looking at them in the supermarket checkout lane so intently that they’ve failed to notice the true, original form of fake news that is staring right back at them from the magazine racks. So, how come a few false rumors circulating in Facebook are so awful, but when it comes to printed media, the Elvis sightings and dinosaur attacks and the continuing saga of Batboy get a free pass? For that matter, we had the concept of “yellow journalism” way back in the 1890s!
That’s a key point where you can tell when a new form of media is being scapegoated: When it’s held up to impossibly high standards that previous mediums were excused from. It’s why your teachers never let you quote from Wikipedia, because “anyone can edit it.” How galling is that? Yes, and anybody can write a blog post. Anybody can write a newspaper article or a magazine article or a book or an opera, too.
Thousands of years ago, any caveman could smear some crushed plant dyes on the wall and post all kinds of prehistoric tweets that would be venerated and studied by sociologists years later. And if he did, there was probably another caveman standing just outside pointing, and preaching to a crowd: “What Ogg do is bad! Ogg take liberty with impressionable young minds! Think of the cave-children!”